Chen Chieh-jen’s new exhibition “A Field of Non-field” is a show that demonstrates refinement, not only in its sleek, grey visual effects, but also in the artist’s work combing through and neatly displaying the contextual relationships that exist between every single element in the exhibition—and on top of this, all of it done to the tune of his concise aesthetic temperament: solemn, neutral, calm.
The artist’s earliest work, “Dysfunction No. 3” (created in 1983 under Taiwanese Martial Law) appears in this exhibition, accompanied by the multi-channel video “Flickering Light” (1983–1984) made at the same time. The two are seen as companion works. The former is a protest against and provocation of power during a dangerous era—a radical action during which the artist wore a balaclava and walked onto Ximending’s Wuchang Street in Taipei, an area surrounded by surveillance cameras and plainclothes police officers. The latter is a horrifying documentary short in which the artist wears the same costume and faces the camera. The flickering light gives the effect that he is standing beneath a surveillance camera. From the perspective of current methodologies, this is a combination of two diametrically opposed ways of working: one about an intervention into reality through action and one about the artist’s interpretation of his subjective experience in his own studio. In Chen Chieh-jen’s case, the two ways of working are placed into one discursive system. The works together make an expressive gesture that moves from the external to the internal: the artist and his friends first braved the pressures of the authorities and took to the streets, and later used an expressionistic video as an alternative form to interpret and portray their inner experience of the moment of danger.
When artists today engage in community intervention under the banner of self-organization, they are rarely motivated to create separate work presenting the abstract spiritual dimension of their actions. But then other artists do not first deliberately search for a foothold in reality for the purpose of fulfilling a conceptual vision. Today’s systems of artistic language and power structures see action theory and theories of ontology as divided into two camps, even opposing camps. The grammatical structure of Chen Chieh-jen’s works has always spanned across both—namely, it is a political approach to life that toggles between reality and the abstract. “Most of my work stems from chance encounters with people, things, places … I am attracted by something in the air in the encounter, the scent of something, and I slowly enter into its environment. Only then do I start to think about how to develop these ‘inexplicable’ images. Most of my videos are ‘incomplete movies’ made up of different senses of time and fragments of events.” Chen Chieh-jen extends the events of reality into the abstract and fragmented worlds of his work, building a coldly symbolic poetry and sense of emptiness in the process.
From “Dysfunction No. 3” to “Flickering Light”, the artist completes the evolution from a so-called action into an abstract vision. In his exhibition, Chen Chieh-jen once again restores these works to their status as “happenings” through archival approaches, supplementing the videos with the story of how their first showing was ultimately rejected by the American Center for Cultural Exchange due to cultural censorship. Chen Chieh-jen’s disillusionment with the ideals of a free world is discussed throughout the exhibition, summed up by the phrase “exiled at home, imprisoned in the world.” In 2016, Chen Chieh-jen’s work “Realm of Reverberation” was shown in Tokyo. Simultaneous to this showing the artist gave a series of lecture performances over the course of several days. Material from these performances and supplementary materials from “Realm of Reverberation” are shown in the exhibition in an archival manner as well. On the last day of those performances, the artist, with all the charisma of true stage presence, invited a young Japanese temporary worker up to the stage to tell his own story, illuminating the brutal realities of labor in a globalized world: control, oppression, exploitation, the maximization of profit. The event is a further window into Chen Chieh-jen’s “global imprisonment.” Lastly, “A Field of Non-Field” (2017), based on the life and circumstances of the artist’s long-unemployed elder brother, is the exhibition’s pièce de resistance, as well as the focal point of its discursive system. It is a film whose gloom reaches a nearly oppressive pitch. In the work, the artist returns once again to the “incomplete movie” as narrative approach.
Throughout the exhibition, Chen Chieh-jen expounds on a series of complex informational and conceptual strands and adeptly weaves them into a hierarchy. On the one hand, we should be bowled over by such a mastery of a language. On the other hand, we should question such a polished operation. Chen Chieh-jen’s view of history, together with his vocabulary, ultimately culminate in a hollow “poetry” and “hierarchy of knowledge”: a poetry in shades of grey and a vast taxonomy of life both having to do with pain in some way. The issue of the idea of being “exiled at home, imprisoned in the world” is in the generality of the notion of “the world” itself. Anybody can target that great all-purpose target that is “capitalism,” but in doing so one has likely already lost sight of the true object of criticism, avoiding political discourses specific to the given region, and deviating from the true pain and reality of survival there. For instance, the residents of Losheng Sanitorium (a leper hospital in Taiwan) in “Realm of Reverberation”, who are about to lose their home and shelter, become in the context of the art work something else entirely; they are (in the artist’s words) “… like images floating, suspended in air over the city and this land of so many traumas.” Here the cruel reality is coerced into abstraction and poetry. The artist, in the name of art, commits linguistic leaps and sublimation. Though he can take refuge in his identity as an artist, even from the perspective of the relatively autonomous aesthetic discourses of art we will not find artistic balance or “beauty” when it is lodged between a cruel and targeted starting point and the denial of its full expression for the sake of “results” or the feeling of a “completed work.” The visual and conceptual discourses of this cold, grey, refined exhibition allow spectators to escape reality and enter into a well-organized one-way theater, themselves becoming objects of the artist’s own personal discursive disciplining.
I must clarify that this concern over making things “immaculate” is not itself the issue here. The problem is in the meeting of the artist’s exercise of language with the reality it confronts. The problem is that for people on the ground, this language does not match up. For someone who is up close to the reality in China, the real world cannot be thrown into the world of spiritual poetics or hollow global theories alone. We need artists and creators whose work, by way of more targeted methodologies, can better reflect upon the behaviors and stance of the artist and upon the realities of the situation.